On becoming the new head chef at the Atrium, Simpsons of Cornhill's 150-seat restaurant at London's Millbank, Michelle Heron set herself quite a task. "The customers here like the traditional stuff, such as sausage and mash and fish and chips, and they're rather reluctant to try new dishes," she explains. "But I've tried to make the menu more interesting and offer them more choice. I'm on a mission to move them on."
She describes the style of her menu as "modern British with a bit of a twist" and although, as a concession, she has included Cumberland sausage with mash and onion gravy (£8.95) and deep-fried sole fillets with chips and tartare sauce (£9.95), Heron is gently encouraging her customers to be a bit more adventurous when choosing from the 11 starters and 11 main courses on offer.
Heron took on the job in February and, while it took some time for the clientele, composed largely of politicians, to try something different, she is pleased to see seared tuna with spicy lentil salad (£7.25) becoming a popular first-course choice. Two of the best-selling starters are lamb's lettuce, Roquefort and crispy bacon (£5.75) and pan-fried mushrooms on olive toast (£5.25), the popularity of which Heron attributes to the fact that they contain familiar ingredients with which the customers feel comfortable.
Main courses which she hopes will tempt those feeling adventurous include black linguine and chargrilled squid with chilli, coriander and garlic (£9.25) and chermoula-marinated mixed fish with spicy rice and saffron oil (£13.95), the latter of which Heron notes has been a big hit. Accompaniments include rocket and Parmesan (£2.75), tomato and basil (£2.50) and wilted spinach (£2.75).
For dessert, in preference to the jam roly-poly she suspects her customers may like, Heron relies on pastry chef Jules Pokov to tickle the tastebuds with the popular blueberry mascarp one cheesecake; iced lemon soufflé with poached fruits; or the ever-changing pudding of the day, which could be anything from baked apple with toffee sauce and cräme anglaise to a chocolate and raspberry cräme roulade. All puddings are priced at £4.50.
The kitchen brigade, including Heron and Pokov, totals 10, most of whom were brought in as part of a new team for Heron to work with. A further 10 staff make up the front of house team led by manager Isabelle Yusta.
Occupying a building with office workers, most of the Atrium's trade is done at lunchtime, with an average total of 140 covers being served in the restaurant and the 60-seat bar, which offers a shorter version of the main menu. According to Heron, evening trade is beginning to pick up and currently stands at 40-50 covers a night. Average spend per head is £30-£35 including wine.
Heron plans to change five or six dishes every two months but will play safe and keep the popular, more traditional dishes. As she says: "Why take it off if it sells?"
The Atrium, 4 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA. Tel: 0171-233 0032.